‘Calm down, Amanda.’ Jane was rubbing my back while I cried into my hands.
‘He photoshopped my head onto a picture of a naked chick’s body because I broke up with him.’
‘I know. Mom and Dad talked to Principal Anders. Jason is suspended and he won’t be going to your graduation dance. You have to let it go. You can’t start high school with this much anxiety. You’re going to meet a lot of assholes. Trust me. I know.’
‘Why are all boys such dickless dicks?’
‘Nice use of words,’ Jane said. ‘You’ll make a fine journalist someday.’
‘Don’t make fun of me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Jane said quickly. ‘That was mean.’
‘Why don’t you act like a big sister for once?’
‘Excuse me? Who’s been sitting here on your bed with you for the last hour?’
‘Why didn’t you warn me about boys?’
‘Honey, you handled yourself pretty well in this case; breaking up with him so quickly and publicly, in fact. And sometimes you have to get caught up in some hardship in order to see what you’re made of. High school is going to be tough. You’re going to need to step up at times.’ Jane stopped rubbing my back for the first time that night and leaned closer to me. ‘Look, you’re going to have to be a hard-ass anyway if you want to be a journalist.’
I pulled my face away from my hands and lifted my head up. There was a kink in the back of my neck from being in the same position for too long.
‘You think I’m tough enough for high school? I’m going to be prey for boys.’
‘You are going to be prey,’ Jane said as sympathetically as she could. She pulled my head onto her shoulder and pressed her cheek onto the top of my head. ‘But you’re certainly tough enough to handle it. Just don’t kick any of them in the balls.’
We giggled. Our shoulders bounced up and down together. But then I stopped. Alison’s face popped into my head.
‘I’m weak,’ I said. Burying face in my hands again.
‘What are you talking about?’ Jane asked, continuing to rub my back.
‘People take advantage of me in the first place because I’m weak. I let myself get too close to an asshole boy. The same asshole boy who treats other kids at school like dirt. He hangs out with those girls who locked Alison in her locker.’ I had to stop talking to catch my breath. I couldn’t formulate words and cry at the same time. ‘I let Alison die.’
‘Don’t you dare say that. Mom and dad have told you not to blame yourself. She didn’t tell anyone what was happening.’ Jane’s voice was getting shaky like mine.
‘I should’ve known. That’s what big sisters are for. I should’ve been there like you’re always there for me.’
‘If that’s the case then I’m failing too as the eldest. I couldn’t protect her and I’m failing you for letting you blame yourself.’
‘It should be me in the ground. Not her.’
‘Stop it Amanda!’ With my face in my hands, I could hear Jane’s voice hovering over my head. Her tears splashing into my hair. ‘You’re the reason the school is taking bullying seriously for the first time. There was no anti-hazing campaign when I was at Citadel High. Mom told me that parents call the house to tell you to keep it up because their kids have a little more confidence. It’s a tough thing to defeat but you’re making progress. You’re a protector you know. Alison would be proud.’
Jane buried her face into the back my neck and caressed me with all her might. ‘You have to keep fighting.’
I jerked my head up and hit the back of it against the wall, letting off a dull thud.
I had fallen asleep in the hallway.
How could I let myself pass out like that? Getting caught unaware in a building run by scavengers placed you at risk of being stripped of certain precious things. Two days ago, one of the first-year girls I barely knew tried to pull the old snatch and grab to steal my glasses.
So yes, sleeping out in the open was risky.
But it wasn’t the sudden fear that I was unconscious and vulnerable that woke me. It was the distant rumble of another fire pillar, like the one that had just evaporated Martin. It meant that another student just took a walk. Or, more horrifying, someone was pushed outside. In any case, there was one less mouth to feed now, which meant less competition for food. Hopefully it was one of the bullies terrorizing the rest of us. But luck wasn’t on my side these days.
I placed my sweaty palms on the wall behind me and pushed my body up off of the floor. The pounding in my chest had died down a little but I was aching all over now. The back of my head was protesting the most. I stood there for a moment and rubbed the sore spot on my skull. It didn’t make it better. The grease in my hair clung to my fingers. My body was trembling. I couldn’t tell if it was from the trauma of almost being assaulted or from malnourishment. It was a good bet that it was probably both.
First your family’s gone. That was a safe assumption to make when you looked outside these days. I hadn’t thought about my family in a while. My eyes welled up.
You’ve gone several days without proper food now. The violent gurgling in my stomach was back.
And in one day your friend gets fried and you almost got violated. I couldn’t say things were going from bad to worse because the worse had been upon us for a while now. How could it get worse? Martin was probably right. What are we waiting for?
Why not take a stroll outside and let yourself be bathed in a shower of fire?
It sounded like someone else was inside my head. Dom perhaps? I had Owen in my thoughts nagging me to stay hidden and not take risks. Now I had the king of the bullies giving different advice; the kind that provided instant relief.
I shook my head to clear the voices out but it only aggravated my sore spot. I was getting more and more concerned about my brain being damaged. I was having distracting flashbacks, inconvenient blackouts and now a second voice was competing for space in my cranium.
Maybe a breath of fresh air will clear your mind…
‘Stop it,’ I said to no one. ‘Back off.’
You have to keep fighting, Jane reminded me.
I decided to get moving. My group was waiting for me and I had a long walk back to the music room. At first I was careful not to make any noise moving up the steps and heading back down the main corridor. But then I remembered what Dom said about laughing at my attempts to remain silent. So screw it. I started walking normally. We’re all out in the open in the corridors. Owen’s advice of remaining hidden wasn’t working. We were being watched anyway. And, what was worst, we were wasting time and getting hungrier trying to sneak around in between hideouts. The hunger was to the point where it was distracting. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about how bad my cramps were getting.
My head felt cloudy. The corridor looked hazy.
It was hot. I picked at my cardigan again. The combination of heat sweat and fear sweat was making my clothes stick to me like Saran wrap. Why don’t you just shed some layers? No. This was now one of the very few possessions I had left in this…whatever world this had become. I needed to keep everything on me. Bits of me were being chipped away by external forces. If I started intentionally throwing away my favourite things…
I reached the Principal’s office halfway down the corridor. I stopped to look in. The office was tucked away behind the secretary’s desk at the back part of the waiting area. I couldn’t see the office itself from where I was standing but I could see the window looking outside. The shards of glass around the frame, pointing inwards, made it look like a shark’s mouth, wide opened, ready to catch its next meal.
Instead of continuing on, I stepped inside. Pieces of glass from the Principal’s office window had blown clear into the waiting room. I was stepping on each shard. This mixed with the sound of my steps stomping on all the files and folders that were strewn and half burned all over the floor. The two uncomfortable, plastic chairs they made us sit in before seeing Mr. Anders were blown into the corner, their metal legs bent in awkward angles. The secretary’s desk was at the front of the room instead of at the back. Like all the metal file cabinets, it was upside down, torqued into a completely different shape and dented all to hell.
I walked into the Principal’s office. Every single item and stick of furniture in there was pressed up against the wall, except what blew through the door and out into the waiting room. Anything made of wood was pulverized. Everything was a dark, powdery brown. The air was heavy. The stench of smoke made my eyes burn. Even to those who didn’t witness what had happened, it was obvious by the devastation in the classrooms and hallways that what destroyed our town was a blast that had hit the front of the school and pushed everything inside to the back of the building.
I moved over to the opened window and looked out. One of the remaining pieces of broken glass hanging from the top of the frame fell and shattered somewhere on the ground outside, like an icicle slowly dying in the oncoming heat of spring. The scene that had been haunting anyone who dared to look out remained the same: a red wasteland littered with the skeletal remains of scorched buildings and vehicles piled up alongside the few walls still standing. Some cars were inside the taller buildings, hanging over the edge of an upper floor. I couldn’t see any vegetation; plants, grass, trees. All extinct. What was left of the taller structures, like the government buildings that were only a few blocks away, looked like they were eaten from above by some giant that got full and ignored the lower floors, leaving them all chewed up.
This new reality was covered by thick, low hanging blood-red clouds. They seemed to rumble when you dared to look up at them. Not a single ray of sunlight pierced through. Though it was probably a good thing that there was no light to illuminate the death on the ground. When they weren’t throwing down fire pillars, they were sending down and covering everything with a stifling red haze. Everything seemed red, like it was raining paint. But it also felt like it was in the air, in my lungs, under my eyelids. All I could see now was red.
A circular patch of cloud directly above the school seemed thicker and darker. It matched a ring on the ground that went around the school and that was completely free of any debris, as if the rubble was trying to crawl away from the building.
Even though the dark clouds above were moving and shifting, there was no sound of wind. There certainly wasn’t any rustling of foliage. The silence weighed heavier than the red air. It also seemed to seep into the school faster. I was consumed by the lack of sound. I could hear nothing.
Back out in the hallway, I looked towards the end where I had run into Dom, Aaron and Kieran. I shuddered at the hazy sight of the T-junction way the hell down there, almost completely obstructed by the red mist hanging in the air between the busted lockers.
I moved away and continued down the hallway, leaving the Principal’s destroyed office behind me. Up ahead to my left was the long narrow corridor that connected the main building to the new cafeteria that was constructed last year. Because of the school’s somewhat weathered state, parts of it were being decommissioned and rebuilt into something that would not collapse on the students. The old eating hall was turned into the woodshop. Even the gym, with its retractable bleachers, which served as our auditorium, was quickly refurbished.
The new cafeteria was built between two of the North-South wings and was connected to the main intersecting hallway with a long narrow corridor. Due to the school’s heritage status, finding matching construction material was abandoned before the project began. Preserving the school’s original look and feel was trumped by the need for kids to eat in a safe environment. It was like stepping into the past or into the future depending on whether you were coming from or going to lunch.
This section of Citadel High, which was a symbol of modernity, was now the epicenter of hell. Dom and his boys had taken it over quickly and deemed it goon headquarters. I didn’t want to imagine what sort of exchanges were going on between them and the other starving teens. A pack of raggedy-looking students were milling about in front of the cafeteria. Two of them were curled up on the floor. Others were pacing back and forth in front of the doors.
I moved on. Leaving that depressing scene behind me.
I entered into the foyer of the school’s main entrance. Broken glass and streaks of dried blood still covered the floor. I moved through quickly and entered the Eastern half of the school.
I reached the end of the main hallway and entered the last North-South wing that ran parallel to Pitt Street outside, where the kids used to wait for the city buses at the end of the day, in another life now. There were emptied classrooms and more scavenged, broken lockers up and down this wing, it too littered with junk and glass. I made my way towards the North end, towards what used to be the school’s North-East entrance for students arriving by public transportation. I say used to be not because the doors were simply blown apart but this entire end of the wing was buried in rubble. This part of the building only had one floor and so it didn’t take much for the roof to collapse when a construction truck came crashing through it.
In its resting place, it looked like a giant metal caterpillar had poked its head through the wall and simply fell asleep there. Rubble surrounded the part of the truck inside the school; it was laid out in front, piled up on either side and on the roof.
All the windows were broken. The front of the truck was crumbled and pushed in. Inside the dark cabin I could see the empty driver and passenger seats, like they were two corpses. I tried not to speculate too much on what happened to the driver. Maybe he was eating his lunch inside the truck when it got carried away. Though that thought was quickly replaced by the image of students standing around in this part of the school when a 30 ton vehicle came crashing in.
For what seemed like ages, I had been slipping past this sleeping beast. It was guarding the entrance to our hideaway. Before it was a pile of rubble, the end of the hallway didn’t just contain the bus entrance but also the doors to the school’s music room. Clumps of the roof where piled up against the only way in except for a small corner near the floor that we were covering with a boulder.
It was perfect. Except for the smell. Past the entrance, in behind a pile of rubble, was our impromptu latrine. It was where we pooped and peed on the floor. Some of us tried to reduce the amount of crap by going up higher on the pile, somewhere between boulders. But you couldn’t hide the stench.
Shaun from our group had witnessed what happened to a first-year student for using the toilets. Dom’s goons had carried him down the hall screaming. The restrooms that were in the main corridor were too close to the cafeteria. And now Kieran had bragged about cutting Martin in the stomach for using the boys’ room.
I looked back down the main hallway and then to the opposite end of the wing. Nobody was there. Confident that I was alone, I wedged between the rubble on the left side of the truck’s cabin in order to get to our cement gatekeeper. I had to flatten my upper body against it just to slide it over enough to stick my fingers through. I then pulled with all my strength. After all that there was still barely room to wiggle through. Some of the fatter students might have been out of luck in using our hiding spot. Then again, there weren’t any big kids in sight. Only the skinny and nimble footed were left roaming the building. Seb was probably the biggest teen now among the survivors because of his large, troll like stature. He was somewhat useful to the bullies which is why he was still kicking around.
Despite a truck crashing down right next to it, the music room was relatively intact. Aside from cheap, second-hand brass instruments and flimsy plastic chairs strewn about and broken, the room itself was sufficient shelter. Immediately after entering was a type of walk-in closet for students to hang their coats and set down their books or bags. I always thought this was a useless space considering we had lockers and didn’t walk around with our jackets. It was an outdated concept. The music room was just one of many areas of the building that had missed its opportunity at being updated.
Through the coat room was the entrance to where students used to play crappy marching songs. Strewn about with the instruments in the room were the kids I had collected. There were ten of us. It might have been a posse to rival Dom’s bullies and cease control of the cafeteria food. But we were hardly the first picks for dodgeball in gym class. I had managed to attract the needy and whiny. Half the group acted like old folks who missed their second nap. Not one of them stood up when I entered the room. The smell from outside followed me in. At least, that’s what I thought until I realized that the smell was coming from inside the room.
Copyright Eric Poirier 2014